It took the German poet Heinrich Heine eight years to die. He began in the summer of 1847, when the German press prematurely announced his decease, but he did not draw his last breath until February 1856. He was fifty-seven or else fifty-nine—there is some doubt about his birth date. Ernst Pawel’s account covers his last years, when he lay in what he called his “mattress tomb,” unable to move his legs and sometimes his arms, and in the later stages occasionally unable to speak or see. The tomb moved from one cheap and gloomy Paris apartment to another, with a funeral cortège consisting of his shopaholic, uneducated, neglectful, and enormously fat wife and her inseparable and equally awful friend Pauline, who was supposed to be the housekeeper.

Mrs. Heine’s name was Crescence, but Heine called her Mathilde. She was fifteen years younger than he was, a nineteen-year-old shopgirl when they first met—a Mimi without a heart. He never stopped regarding her as a child: a “sweet, fat child” in one of his last poems, where he imagines her tottering round the cemetery with aching feet to lay a wreath of dried flowers on his grave; and he advises her to climb into one of the fiacres waiting at the gates. He worried all the time about leaving her destitute when he died.

His illness, whatever it was, was painful as well as paralyzing. Not long after he fell ill, he suffered from hideous cramps, and one of the cures his doctors employed was to make cuts in his back and fill them with powdered morphia. He could not sleep at night, so that was when he composed his poems and thought out the articles he contributed to the French and German press. Next day he would dictate them to a secretary. The secretaries were mostly young men trying to make a literary career (“scribblers engaged by Heine more or less ad hoc”), so there were quite a number of them over the years; and plenty of other visitors, too.

Heine had acquaintances among French intellectuals and German exiles like himself, and the mattress tomb was on the itinerary of German tourists, especially left-wing ones. Heine had chosen to live in Paris in 1831, after his latest writings had been banned in Prussia. In 1835, according to Pawel, Metternich persuaded the German Federal Assembly to ban “all of Heine’s writings, and the Prussian police issued a warrant for his arrest.” Gordon Craig, in his new book on German writers,1 seems to think that there was not actually an arrest warrant; but it would have been difficult for Heine to return after Metternich was so offended by his attacks on the reactionary regime that he proscribed his writing. Still, says Craig in his sympathetic and witty essay, “Metternich enjoyed Heine’s poetry and is said to have wept copiously over the Buch der Lieder.” Heine would have loved that. Crocodile tears are the sort of hypocrisy he liked to savage, though sometimes he shed a few himself.

His own worst hypocrisy was to accept, in 1840, a pension from the reactionary French government. It did his reputation a lot of harm—with German patriots on the one hand, and French and German progressives on the other. Ernst Pawel doesn’t try to defend him:

In accepting a subsidy from the French government as a tribute to his literary stature he was quite possibly fooling himself but hardly anybody else. The position of a supposedly independent journalist of known radical persuasion being on the secret payroll of a reactionary government is morally indefensible. Heine had no pressing need of the money in 1840, when it was first offered to him. But it flattered his ego, and he accepted it as a tribute to his genius, a token of appreciation, and a bearhug from the notoriously literate French bureaucracy, even though he was far too intelligent not to have known better.

Heine is credited with having invented the German tag: Guter Mensch, aber schlechter Musikant, meaning a decent fellow, but without much talent. He himself has generally been seen as the exact opposite. Pawel concludes his book with a defense:

Many of even his warmest admirers have felt obliged to pass moral judgment on Heine and found him wanting. He was often petty, vindictive, given to slander, self-pity, and self-aggrandizement, inconsistent in his opinions and unwilling to commit himself. That he could also be kind and generous and treated his wife with uncommon affection hardly counted in the balance.

But the two outstanding things about him, says Pawel, were 1) “he was a poet”; and 2) “he dealt with his dying in a way that far transcended mere courage and gave it a meaning few men have been able to wrest from it.”

Pawel does not say much about the late poetry except that it “was unlike anything” Heine had written before. Instead, he adds a selection of poems in the original German, accompanied by translations from the Modern English Version published in 1983 by Hal Draper. Presumably Pawel thought (for he died last year) that the poems would speak for themselves. And so they do: the most harrowing of them is called “Im Mai” (“In May”) and describes the agony of lying in bed, sick and in pain, at the most heartbreakingly beautiful time of year. But even this poem is characteristically full of jokes—stylistic jokes, in this case, that mock the traditional vocabulary of poems about spring. The German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki2 claims that Heine was the first to introduce colloquial diction into German poetry, and to adopt a casual tone in verse. He quotes Karl Kraus and Adorno, who both said the same thing, though in their case they meant to trash Heine, not to praise him. In any case, it’s not quite true, because Goethe could be laid-back and conversational, too.

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But one sees what Pawel means, because Heine was habitually like that; and even in the most solemn poem the reader suddenly finds himself falling through a satirical trapdoor into a deliberately banal and sometimes crass vernacular. Among the poems chosen by Pawel, “Gedächtnisfeier” (“Commemoration Service”), which appears on the next page, is characteristic. This is the poem in which Mathilde visits her husband’s grave. The first verse is a funeral march: slow rhythm, solemn words. Then the pace changes to a frisky trot, the language becomes colloquial. It may not be the very best instance of Heine’s tactics, but it is the one where the translation gets closest to them—exceptionally difficult in his case, if only because he makes full use of the German language’s license to invent new words by tinkering with old ones, or else marrying them together. The poem “Im Mai” contains the best examples, but the translation can’t even try to catch the changes of mood and intention they produce. From time to time Pawel tries his hand at taking a leaf out of Heine’s book, but his choice of popular expressions can be archaic; “curmudgeons” and “blithering bores” have not been around for some time.

On the subject of the dying itself—or rather of the life that constituted it—Pawel is informative and imaginative. Against a background of the political situation in France and Germany, he gives one a sense of the va-et-vient in the various apartments Heine occupied; of his daily routine; of his conversations and correspondence with friends, enemies, and with his publisher Julius Campe who was sometimes one and sometimes the other—at least in Heine’s eyes. But Campe was the kind of publisher he needed.

He had to deal with a Byzantine tangle of censorship jurisdictions that required all publications of less than…320…pages to obtain separate imprimaturs from each German state (the idea being that only scholars and other harmless freaks would read books fatter than that); on the other hand, he had to keep from going bankrupt, which for a publisher of some discriminating taste and political convictions involved a number of painful compromises.

Not an easy balancing act in the best of times, but a real challenge in the age of Metternich…Henry Kissinger’s role model.

The last four words show Pawel adopting Heine’s habit of taking unexpected swipes at public figures.

Pawel’s insights into Heine’s character are convincing. He defines him neatly as “rebel rather than revolutionary,” and recognizes that “most of his quarrels with zealots of one stripe or another ultimately came down to personality clashes.” Pawel’s position is like a kindly tutor’s; fond of his charge and always ready to defend him, but hard on any misbehavior. He is magisterial toward the reader, too: “The difference between a skeptic and a cynic,” he pronounces, “may escape the myopic eye, but however slight, it happens to be a crucial one.” Heine, of course, is classed among the skeptics.

Pawel’s tone softens when he writes about Heine’s last love. The poet dedicated several posthumously published poems to his Mouche. Her real name was Elise Krinitz, and she never became his mistress. He was past having one, and in any case would probably not have been unfaithful to Mathilde, though Mathilde was jealous just the same. Mouche was small, delicate, pretty, gentle, intuitive, intelligent, and educated, everything that Mathilde was not; and being bilingual in French and German she was able to act as Heine’s secretary. She seems to have been something of an intellectual groupie. Before meeting Heine she had been the lover of his friend, the writer Alfred Meissner; after Heine’s death she became the mistress of Hippolyte Taine; and after that a teacher at a school in Rouen.

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Pawel includes a poem where Heine complains that Mouche kept him waiting all day long for a visit and never turned up; but not two much more cruel and explicit ones, in which he mocks a relationship where one partner is not really keen on sex, and the other impotent. Perhaps Pawel left out this aspect of the relationship because he wanted Heine to have some happiness before his death.

In any case, what interests him most about the poet is his Jewishness. Pawel has written other biographies of Jews, of Kafka and of Herzl. But Heine’s Jewishness has been explored over and over again, not just by Reich-Ranicki, Karl Kraus, Adorno, and many others before them, but in 841 pages by Professor S.S. Prawer in Heine’s Jewish Comedy: A Study of His Portraits of Jews and Judaism which appeared in 1983. Prawer derived Heine’s psychology (and particularly his sporadic anti-Semitism)from the fact that he belonged to the first generation of emancipated Jews “who frequently took a self-torturing and prophylactic pleasure in applying to themselves the stereotypes evolved by their enemies.” Pawel admits that Heine sometimes displayed self-hatred, but denies that it was ever Jewish self-hatred. Writing from what he calls “a post-Holocaust perspective,” he explains that Heine converted to Christianity as a young man because, as a Jew in Germany, he found it impossible to enter the kind of career he wanted. Many of his generation of emancipated Jews discovered they were not as unrestricted as they had imagined, and did exactly what Heine did. So one way or another his biographers and critics accuse him of being either too Jewish, or not Jewish enough.

Pawel’s line is that he was much more Jewish than he thought; and he is particularly annoyed when Heine joined the popular German (and later Arnoldian) debate about Hellenes and Nazarenes—pagan versus Christian, classical versus romantic, the spirit versus the flesh, and so on—and claimed to be a Hellene. “Hellene, indeed,” he snorts. The subtext of his book sometimes seems to be a diatribe against assimilation. Gerhard Höhn, on the other hand, in Heinrich Heine, Un intellectuel moderne,3 published last year in Paris, is not interested in Heine as a Jew at all. He calls him a “Franco-German” writer, and claims that his type is “more suitable to France than Germany.” The main drift of his book is that Heine was the direct ancestor of Sartre and all the other “engagés” writers of the postwar years. Höhn deals with Heine’s poetry as poetry even less than Pawel, but at least his title tells one what to expect.

This Issue

August 10, 1995

  1. 1

    Gordon A. Craig, The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power (Oxford University Press, 1995). 

  2. 2

    Uber Ruhestörer: Juden in der deutschen Literatur (Munich: R. Piper, 1973). 

  3. 3

    Presses Universitaires de France.